The finale to the Supercars season in Newcastle built towards a thrilling climax, but for the Red Bull Holden Racing Team, the ending fell flat.
By Matthew Clayton for redbull.com
Ever watched a Hollywood movie that’s perfectly set up for a thrilling conclusion, but then the script lets you down? Us too. Shane van Gisbergen probably has as well. Scott McLaughlin would have too, although right now, the newly-crowned 2018 Supercars champion probably couldn’t care less.
The record books will show that a DJR Team Penske’s McLaughlin, who lost out on the Supercars title in Newcastle 12 months ago after a final race where everything that could have gone wrong did to allow Jamie Whincup to snatch the title for the Red Bull Holden Racing Team, took the 2018 series crown by 71 points from fellow Kiwi van Gisbergen, after the compatriots finished second and fourth respectively in Sunday’s final race of the season, which was won by David Reynolds (Erebus). But there’s more context to this story than numbers could ever tell.
Rewind 24 hours to the first of the weekend’s 95-lap races on the Newcastle city streets, and you could barely have had a more dramatic conclusion set up for the finale the next day. With van Gisbergen hunting down an ailing McLaughlin late in Race 30 of the season, car 17 nursing a dwindling fuel load to the flag, the only question was whether SVG could catch the series (and race) leader. He managed it on the last lap, with two corners to go no less, and McLaughlin’s series lead was slashed to just two points, setting up a winner-takes-all finale for Sunday. Except that it didn’t.
SVG’s win on Saturday night remained provisional, after race stewards cast a beady eye over vision from his final pit stop. Come Sunday morning, the script, if you’re of a RBHRT or Holden persuasion, went pear-shaped. SVG was assessed a 25-second time penalty for Saturday’s race, when it was determined that his car was dropped to the ground in that final pit stop with the fuel hose still connected, a contravention of the rules. That 25-second penalty saw him drop from first to fifth in the race results which, combined with the extra points McLaughlin gained from his inherited victory, saw a two-point deficit balloon to 53 with one race left. SVG was, as you can imagine, unimpressed. “That’s shit,” was his succinct response, the public one at any rate …
McLaughlin started from second on the grid in Sunday’s finale and van Gisbergen third, and while a number of permutations and calculations came into play, McLaughlin only needed to finish inside the top six even if van Gisbergen won the race to secure his maiden Supercars title, which he had failed to do just once in the previous 22 races. The writing, in bold and underlined, was on the wall.
In the end, McLaughlin led fairly comfortably for much of the race from lap 21, when he jumped pole-sitter Reynolds in the first round of pit stops, and while he later gave up the lead to a charging Reynolds in the final laps rather than get into a fight he didn’t need, second was good enough to secure his first title, SVG finishing fourth to seal his fate.
SVG was quick to pay tribute to his compatriot after the race, but could only wonder what might have been without the Saturday sanction. Even without that, Sunday didn’t go his way – he qualified behind McLaughlin in the Top 10 Shootout, didn’t make much ground at the start, and then his car had significant damage from excessive tyre pick-up, which popped out the guards on both front tyres as a largely soporific race meandered towards its conclusion.
“We did everything we could,” he said.
“Congrats to them, they’ve been worthy competitors and worthy champions.
“I’ve enjoyed the fight and am still proud, but it’s a tough one. That race, I just got stuck behind James (Courtney) and couldn’t do anything to get up there.
“I’m still happy, it’s still cool, I just feel a bit gutted that the series did what they did. It’s just inconsistent, it’s average.
“I would have loved to have fought on equal points and had a bit more motivation, but we were pretty dejected today with all that.”
SVG’s 2018 finished with six poles, seven wins and 10 other podiums, but not the title he so craved to add to his 2016 success. A ninth teams’ title for Triple Eight, earned last time out at Pukekohe, was an achievement he described as “a massive thing for our team”, and with good reason.
While SVG was the RBHRT driver in the spotlight all weekend, Whincup left Newcastle with a pair of third-place finishes to finish (you guessed it) third in the championship, 511 points behind McLaughlin. Whincup, who admitted it was strange to turn up the site of his seventh title a year ago with no shot of defending it in the final round of the year, played the team game on Saturday after beating pole-sitter van Gisbergen into the first corner from P2 on the grid, while on Sunday, he emerged from a second scrape with Team Penske’s Fabian Coulthard in as many days to take up the final spot on the podium again, bolstering his season tally to 15, which included five wins.
Third on Sunday was a strong result after qualifying just seventh after the Shootout, and while he’ll relinquish the number 1 on his car for 2019, he’s already looking ahead – once he’s had a chance to recharge his batteries.
“I haven’t felt this tired in a long time, so I’m really looking forward to chilling out,” he admitted.
“All in all, it’s been a great year and I’m really proud of everyone in the team, you can’t win them all. A big congrats to Scotty and the car 17 crew, they did a great job all year and certainly deserve the number one on the car next year – I’m looking forward to bringing 88 back.
“I hate plucking one little incident and I hate just talking about one thing that happened on the last weekend – championships are about the results across the whole year, so they did a great job. Unfortunately, we finished P2, it always hurts more finishing P2, I’ve been there a few times myself. But overall (Shane) did a great job, and we’ll be bigger and better next year.”
Someone who won’t be back new year, at least in a full-time capacity, is Triple Eight’s Craig Lowndes, who signed off a two-decade career in the top flight in Newcastle with two results that won’t make his highlights reel (23rd on Saturday after contact in the pits with Scott Pye and 11th on Sunday), but gave the sport’s fans and fellow competitors one final chance to say goodbye.
Ford and McLaughlin fans would beg to differ, of course, but the highlight of the weekend came after Lowndes did a lap of the circuit in an open-top Holden before Sunday’s race. When he returned to pit lane, every member of every team saluted him with a guard of honour, from drivers to team management to mechanics and more besides. A more heartfelt way of expressing the universal appreciation of one of the sport’s greats would be hard to imagine.
“It was emotional, the lead-in to the race was really special, something I’ll remember and cherish for a long time,” Lowndes said on Sunday evening after one of the more impressive celebratory set of post-race donuts we’ve witnessed.
“Today our strategy didn’t play too well. If we’d had a late safety car, it would have fallen into our hands. That’s what it’s all about, we try hard, we work as a team, we win and lose as a team and I’m really proud of what we’ve done as a team and achieved this year. A really big thanks to everyone that’s been involved.
“To finish fourth in the championship is real credit to the team, it showed we can still fight it with the best, and I’m really looking forward to closing this chapter off now.”
The next chapter starts with the Adelaide 500 next February; for now, it’s time to celebrate (or commiserate), and debate a season that ebbed and flowed, provided plenty of flashpoints, and sets the tone for what will surely be a dramatic 2019 campaign.